Full Chisel Blog

February 8, 2008

First Entry in the Log

Filed under: Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 3:45 pm

Full Chisel


Paper Cut Out

Well here we are.

 I have just spent 2 weeks working in my shop.  Let me tell you about my shop.  I work at This is the Place Historic Park, a living history museum in Salt Lake City, Utah.  It is January and it is cold.  My shop is a board and batten building, a copy of the 1857 Henry Dinwoody Cabinet Shop and I have a fancy iron stove brought here by ox cart.  All of my tools are of the period and I do traditional woodwork.  The wood out here is softwoods, predominantly and they are all painted and grained to imitate fancy woods of the East and Europe. But it is cold and that is what I am going to focus upon until it warms up.  I did this experiment to see what it was like for our ancestors to work in conditions year round.  This is everything from how much wood it took to stay ‘warm’, to melting snow for water, warming work before it can be glued, warming the glue, warming myself and my cacao.  What is the best combination of clothing available during the period to keep warm?   I monitored my health, weight, food and water intake as well as the temperature and humidity of both my shop and outside.  This time was particularly cold and I had to make adjustments.  The outside temperature ranged from low single digits to about 30º (F) with humidity from 10% to 60%, the low exterior, the high interior. Did I mention that it was cold, and I may have failed to mention that the wind blows with gusts up to 35 MPH, but the wind blows at our location all of the time day or night.  I regularly walk through drifts up to my knees.  Located at the mouth of a canyon, it blows either up or down, every single day.  The deer bed down during the day in an oak thicket behind my shop, we have coyotes, bobcats and cougars, the rattlesnakes are sleeping this time of year. The first thing I encounter when I come to my shop in the morning before the sun is up, is the iron and brass lock on the back door.  The lock is the same temperature as the outdoors temperature, so I try not to touch it for very long.  I then must start a fire.  I have everything ready so there is no fumbling to get a flame.  My strike-a-light is a bit of charred linen cloth, a piece of flint, a hardened fire-steel and a bit of tow (coarse linen fibers).  I put prepared kindling in the stove and use the flint and steel to start a fire. I hold the piece of char cloth on top of the flint (the hottest sparks curl up) and a few strikes and I have a glowing ember in the char cloth.  The char cloth is linen or cotton fabric that has been burnt in the absence of oxygen.  This is done in a small metal container with a small hole in the lid.  The cloth is placed in the container, placed in the coals and allowed to carbonize.  Once the smoke no longer emanates from the hole the char cloth is done. With a glow in the char cloth it is transferred to the tow which is arranged like a small birds nest, I breathe onto the bundle increasing the oxygen and it heats up.  Soon a glow then smoke, then I stop blowing and flame.  I immediately transfer the burning birds nest into the kindling and shortly I have fire.  I then light a candle and the grease lamps are warming up on the stove.  It is very difficult getting a grease lamp burning when the grease is hard from the cold. I will have to check the stove every half hour or so and add more wood as needed.  I also haul in water for a tea pot on the stove and the days drinking and washing water.  My well doesn’t freeze over so I don’t need to melt snow, which I did before the well was dug. Inside my shop is generally 10 degrees warmer that the outside when I arrive in the morning.  But it can start out at 26 degrees when the outdoors temperatures are in the teens.  By the end of the day it has warmed up to 53 degrees.  As you can imagine it is not necessarily the best place to work but it is exactly what our ancestors experienced when they did the same thing a 150 years ago.  I put myself in the same situation although I am sure I complained more than craftsmen from the past.  Chopping firewood does actually warm you twice, when you split it and when it is burned you are warmed as well. There certain things you try and avoid doing when it is this cold.  For one thing gluing with hot hide glue is out of the question, at my best temperature it would have been difficult to do a glue up.  I did use liquid hide glue and it required that I warm the glue and the wood.  I did a few glue ups during this period and didn’t have any trouble.  Another thing I avoid is any tool made of metal that you have to hold in your hand.  You can use gloves or mittens but this is not always practicable.  My favorite brace, a Spafford pattern coach maker’s, is all iron and this time of year always cold. I use tools with wooden handles; these can be cold however as well.  I did notice one thing in particular and that was the finish put on tool handles.  Most of mine are wood with linseed oil, renewed as needed.  I just bought a set of screwdrivers with some sort of hard varnish finish.  I have one of the same style that is just beech with linseed oil finish.  I could feel the difference, the varnish handles were colder.  When the weather warms up I will be stripping the varnish from all my new screwdriver handles. It is important to dress properly under these conditions.  I wear layers of clothing starting out with under drawers and linen (a little too thin) or canvas trousers.  An undershirt and a linen over shirt with a canvas vest.  I also wear two coats and take the long linen duster off first and later shed my canvas sack coat.  A hat, scarf and mittens top it off.  The foot ware and stockings are another matter.  The lined boots and shoes are a bit warmer than unlined versions of traditional boots and shoes. What is of the most importance is the stockings.  Thin cotton in several layers is not bad, two layers are cold.  Thick cotton stockings over thinner ones are good but still cold.  Wool stockings are the best, I tried thin and thick cotton underneath, wool alone and wool over silk.  The last was actually the best my feet were warm almost all day long.  Sitting down warming and massaging my feet would warm them up again. I also wear a linen shop apron and sleeve stockings which add layers of protection.  I also wear a lined linen shop cap and that is an important addition as it retains a great deal of body heat.  I put on gloves or mittens to get firewood, handle metal objects, the fire poker and shovel as well as metal tools that I might have to use if I have to use them and can with my hands covered. No not all of this is bad, you can do a lot more hand planing without overheating.  Also sawing and boring generates heat as does working the treadle lathe.  This is the time of year I want to crank the grand wheel rather that work at the lathe.  The physical work generates heat and that requires a lot more intake of food.  In order to do this in a traditional manner for the two weeks I ate food that was common to the nineteenth century.  In order to kick up the calories I fried my morning bacon in lard and daubed up the grease with some bread. At first I lost a few pounds then added more protein, fat and sugar to my diet put the weight back on and maintained the weight for the balance of the experiment.  It doesn’t appear that it had any effect upon my health and I felt good albeit cold the entire time.  And I did notice that I could eat more fat because being cold actually burns calories and doing physical labor also requires more energy intake. You can use shellac without any problem the alcohol prevents it from freezing.  Oil paint can be used as well if it is warmed up.  Oil based Varnish or paint can also be applied and it does help to warm the pieces being painted as well as the varnish or paint.  It also may take a little longer to dry but it does dry. Of course during this time period I for some reason worked on iron objects knowing how cold they could be.  I made a toothing iron, requiring taking an existing blade, removing the temper by heating it to a cherry red then placing it in a bucket of wood ashes.  The next day I removed it from the bucket of ash and filed serrations on the back (non bevel) side of the blade.  Fortunately the file had a wooden handle but the iron was cold.  I worked on a couple of other projects but limited my contact with metal as, did I mention it is always cold. One day when retrieving water my hand was wet and froze to the brass door knob on my back door.  It came off as soon as the heat of my hand warmed the small brass knob but it was a start to get stuck to my door knob. One thing that you have to be careful about is sweating in the winter.  Now I know this sounds unlikely but it is possible to put yourself in harms way if in the wintertime you work up a sweat and have know way to remain warm as you dry out.  Once your clothes are wet it is possible to develop what today they call hypothermia and in the nineteenth century the ‘chills’. I suppose the main difference between what I did and what my ancestors went through is that I knew in the back of my mind, if things got bad I actually had an alternative.  If I sweated I knew I could find a place to get warm.  If I ran out of firewood I could easily get more.  If I was injured I could get professional help not available to our forebears.  I have also had my shots so tetanus, the plague, small pox and yellow fever were not a problem. This experience also gave me some insights that I did not have before I started this event.  I had recreated conditions that haven’t been occurred for one hundred and fifty years or longer.  I put myself through this in order to gain insights into the past and it left me a different person.  During this time period I did some investigation and experiments on the techniques and methods employed in the nineteenth century.  As I analyze the information and make sense of the notes and put it all together I will add it to this endeavor.   Stephen


  1. nko krill oil…

    Man i just love your blog, keep the cool posts comin…..

    Trackback by nko krill oil — February 28, 2008 @ 10:46 pm

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    Thanks for the nice read, keep up the interesting posts…..

    Trackback by petroleum refining process — March 2, 2008 @ 7:46 am

  3. Stephen,
    I enjoy your blog. I found your cold weather experiment particularly interesting.

    Are you making any progress on the Deseret Agriculture and Manufacturing Fair?

    You mentioned that you modeled your workshop after Henry Dinwoody’s chair making shop. Do you have much in the way of historical materials (written and photographic) about Henry Dinwoody, his chairs, and his shops? I need to reference Henry in a paper I’m writing for a scholarly conference.

    Comment by Richard Oman — March 17, 2008 @ 7:21 am

  4. Richard,

    I am glad you enjoy my web log and good to see you here.

    We are working on the DA&MS, reestablishing it and planning a Fair.

    I have some interesting information about Henry Dinwoodey, Photographs of his 1857-1859 Board & Batten in the USHS, as well as his 2 story adobe and his 6 story brick building (still standing).

    Will be happy to share what I have and what I have heard.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — March 17, 2008 @ 7:37 am

  5. Do you know when Henry Dinwoody opened his furniture manufacturing shop? Do you have pictures of it?

    Comment by Rick — June 28, 2009 @ 11:03 pm

  6. Rick,

    Henry Dinwoodey opened his own shop in 1857 and there is a picture in the Utah Historical Society.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — June 29, 2009 @ 5:29 am

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